Lalo • Berlioz • Saint-Saëns
In his brief introductory note, Pieter Wispelwey refers to a long spun-out melody in Saint-Saëns’s Second Cello Concerto and to its achievement of ‘a quasi-Buddhist state’. To this I would add only that this state also owes much to Wispelwey’s supreme command of line and tone – I presume that, like all cellists, he employs upbows and downbows, but in this passage the junctions are inaudible. Saint-Saëns recognised that the technical difficulties of this, his last concerto, would prevent it being as popular as his First Cello Concerto, and sadly he has been proved right. But it’s a fascinating work, somehow combining virtuosity and serenity
to produce a coherent structure.
The high point of the Lalo Concerto is its sprightly second movement ‘Intermezzo’, where balletic elegance rules. There’s also some rhythmic fun in the finale, but even Wispelwey can’t bring to life the long first movement, where Lalo seems to be doing his utmost to impress. In particular, the loud orchestral exclamation marks (no fewer than 50 of them) soon become tiresomely predictable.
Clearly some intervening music was required between two concertos in D minor, for which the love music from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette – one of the glories of the 19th-century orchestral repertoire – was a bold choice. This performance respects the composer’s meticulous markings and the result, if not exactly Buddhist, is honest and satisfying. It says much for the Saint‑Saëns concerto that it stands up well to such inspired competition.